Consciousness (VII) — Panpsychism: Panacea, or Flash in the Pan?

A great deal of clarity can be achieved in philosophy of mind if we simply clarify the concepts of experience and physical properties. Experience can acquire its definition by direct observation of the operations of consciousness itself “from the inside.”[1] Meanwhile, the definition of “physical property” which I assume is something like: “abstract geometric structural properties and blind (e.g., non–‘purposeful’) dispositions towards patterns of inert cause and effect.”[2] Think of it like this: if I look at the wall next to me, I do not ordinarily assume that the wall has any of the dispositions to move or be moved by other objects in space that it has because it is blue. Rather, the modern picture of science would have me assume that I perceive it to be blue because of the way that the wall’s spatial–structural properties cause it to be disposed to reflect or absorb various mathematically definable frequencies of light. What is the relationship between its “blueness” and the abstracted geometric structures and inert causal dispositions towards blind patterns of spatial movement that correlate with me experiencing it as “blue?” Does that “blueness” exist in the atoms of the wall itself, or does “blue” only exist inside my mind itself as a function of my own conscious act of synthesizing a perception from those physical ingredients? Does it make sense to call the two properties “identical?” Does one “emerge from” or “reduce to” the other? That is the basic heart of the problem the existence of phenomenal consciousness poses. None of these answers are obviously correct; each has at least some apparently significant difficulties; and yet some answer has to be true. 

My argument throughout this series has been that if we assume that physical objects are described through and through by “physical properties” as just defined—and we assume that the world as a whole is composed of no other essential ingredients at its ultimate core than physical objects as so defined—then it becomes simply incoherent to conceive of how any of the properties of experience which we know directly and immediately through our very acts of experiencing (and, no less, through which we we make all our inferences, without exception, about the world we can only assume—even with great justification—lies outside of those experiences themselves) could come to exist. While some physicalists may swear that future science will somehow ‘eventually’ resolve that question even if we can’t see how from here, I argue that this is exactly like realizing we have been trying to draw a robust 3D figure onto a flat 2D canvas, and realizing we need an entirely new medium in order to get the kind of figure we’re looking for to “fit” into the picture at all—that we are therefore absolutely justified to throw out the canvas completely, while what physicalists are doing is swearing that we’ll figure it out if we just keep trying, and that we’re shirking our intellectual obligations if we don’t spend the rest of eternity drawing lines every which conceivable way on the canvas until we figure it out, because we’re inferentially justified by the success of all our previous drawings of 2D figures on that canvas to believe that this one will eventually be able to fit, as well.

The ordinary physicalist would have it that science is progressing so thoroughly towards a complete understanding of the world that we should assume it is inevitable that it will eventually account for the nature of consciousness and the human organism in nothing other than those very terms. On the contrary, I contend: (1) that we are not understanding the world at all unless we are coming to understand the nature of our own consciousness’ place within it; and (2) that in an important sense, the only aspects of the world which we know directly at all are the qualitative and intentionalistic aspects of consciousness known to our most direct and unmediated awareness of existing which physicalism simply erases by fiat and by definition out of the picture of what it is that “reality” is most ultimately composed of. I think accounting for the nature of the human organism and consciousness is something like a marathon, and I think all physicalist attempts to even begin to account for it fail in principle so extremely that they are tripping on their own shoelaces and slamming themselves into a concussion on the pavement at the literal very first step. What the philosophers call “qualia” (and intentionality) are not some mere incidental detail(s) that we need to find some way to tidy up into our otherwise successful picture of the world; the only thing we know with the kind of knowledge that knows with immediacy are the “qualia” (and intentionality) that compose the entirety of our very existence, from every single sensory field that we experience what we take to be an external world through, to the physical sensation of “being in (or part of) a body” to emotions to the feelings of exerting mental effort (to, in the case of intentionality, every single thought we ever have “about” absolutely anything whatsoever at all). And the physicalist or materialist account simply erases these from its understanding of the natural world—and then simply can’t ever coherently get them back, in principle, once having done so. Yet, not only do we know that they are there—they are actually the only thing we know at all. The entire notion of “a physical entity” as we ordinarily conceive of it is purely an abstracted concept—and physicalism cannot even account for the existence of “concepts,” since these inherently “refer” to something and have “meaning”—but no physical object defined by its purely abstract disposition to move this way or that through space when pushed this way or that by a physical object with similar dispositions is ever “about,” “refers” to,  or “means” anything. 

The conscious life we all know and experience is like a chicken pot pie we’re all tasting at every single moment. Physicalism is like the philosophy that the only ingredient that ever went into creating that pie was sugar—refuted in reverse by the fact that if that were true, it would predict that the chicken pot pie we all know we’re tasting and doing nothing other than taste at every moment simply could never have come to exist. We know, from the final products we are all observing and doing nothing other than observe at every moment through unmediated awareness of awareness itself, that that in principle can not be the only kind of ingredient that the world is built out of. It isn’t some small technicality that needs to be chopped up into some hacksawed form that can be stuffed into our ordinary physical picture of the world. It’s a failure to account for the fundamental existence of the only phenomena our awareness of which ever even causes us to postulate the independent existence of any sort of external physical world at all. To return to the earlier example: I never see the world of inertly interacting particles that physics supposedly tells me describes how the wall “really is” at all. The only thing I ever see is exactly the component that the physical picture of the world tells me is not part of how the world really is down deep at its root at allits “blueness. And the very notion that “physical” objects exist in this abstracted sense at all is purely a theory devised purposefully in order to account for the “blueness” and subjective felt sensation of texture which I do know by direct, unmediated awareness unquestionably does exist. Supposing that this is ultimately what the world is built out of renders us incapable in principle of accounting for every single aspect and component of the one and only thing that composes all of our actual direct knowledge of the nature of reality. It is a concept derived by subjective conscious awareness for a reason, when physicalism cannot even account for the existence of “concepts” or the notion that things are ever done “for reasons” (that is, to achieve purposes as opposed to because it was pushed) at all.

If we want to even begin to understand what 3D reality might actually look like, we simply have no choice but to throw out that canvas entirely. The conscious, subjective, ‘private,’ qualitative and sensational, purposeful, intentionalistic, logical and conceptually thinking minds we know firsthand are themselves basic parts of the ultimate “furniture” of what reality itself most ultimately is. And we have no choice but to start from there. No other starting point can even get us to arrive at the fact that it exists, when its existence is the only thing we actually know directly—and the one and only medium through which we postulate the existence (however justifiably) of anything else whatsoever at all.

We might sketch a diagram of the connection between the various possible positions as so:


Pinpointing the central core of the question in this way helps us to understand how all the positions relate, and why they are organized in the order in which they are. Phrased in this way, interactionist dualism is hardly an ad hoc or arbitrary thesis—it is simply a “Yes” answer to ‘Do conscious experiences and intentionality exist?’, followed by a “No” answer to ‘Can conscious experience and intentionality be understood as identical to / reducible to / emergent from (all of these phrases ultimately amount to different ways to verbally express the same ontological claim) anything other than themselves (especially physical properties in particular)?’ followed by a “No” answer to ‘Can conscious experience and intentionality be understood as epiphenomenal with respect to the world?’ Each of these answers can be extremely well supported with extensive and detailed argument. They are not “arguments from ignorance” about how the materialist claims are true any more than the atheistic argument from evil is an “argument from ignorance” about how it is true that God is omnibenevolent despite the existence of apparent evils (well, I suppose that one might argue that it is—but one would have to argue that it is and at least prove that that argument is successful in order to justify the right to claim so).

The ultimate question which all of these positions provide differing answers to is the very straightforward one of how the physical, causally disposing properties of physical objects (and forces) and subjective/qualitative experience ‘hang together’ in the world. And the “mind–body problem” exists as an objective problem regardless of what anyone ‘feels’ about it: we really don’t know how the two should fit together in our general picture of the world, and there are a strictly limited number of logical possibilities for what the answer could be, each of which faces at least some immediately apparent difficulties. Physical objects (and forces) are what they areobject–ively,” in a way that is fully visible to all outside observers—yet, if you look inside of my brain, you aren’t going to encounter anything like the subjective taste of chocolate which I’m experiencing. How the hell does it ‘sit’ “in there,” then? That’s mysterious, whether you think there’s a materialist answer for it or not. In a sense, that already—just plain in and of itself—looks a hell of a lot like a “ghost” inside of a “machine.”

If we use loose terminology like “mind” and “brain,” it’s easy to formulate pseudo–‘positions’ in philosophy of mind in terms so loose as to be meaningless enough to be worth neither defending nor refuting. “The mind is what the brain does,” goes one of the popular slogans. For God’s sake, what does that mean?! It could mean entirely different things depending on how exactly you define “mind” and how exactly you define “brain”—nevermind how you define the word “is,” nevermind the word “does.” But if we think of physical properties in the way I’ve defined them (without necessarily making assumptions about whether “physical properties” as defined are the only kinds of properties physical objects and forces have—if there are others, we can specify them and add them in later and see if they change anything) and focus clearly on the subjective, qualitative (and intentionalistic) aspects of consciousness which create the problematic mysteries, we can begin to chart a space of logically possible ways of holding them together. And then maybe we can start to get somewhere.

As I have drawn the situation, what we have is a train moving from eliminativism to reductive/emergentist/identity accounts to epiphenomenalism to interactionist dualism. In the broadest sense, we might define a “physicalist” as someone who is intellectually disposed to want to try to jump off of this train as soon as the leap doesn’t look suicidal. If the “physicalist” thinks he can swallow eliminativism, he does so—and if he can’t, then he prepares to jump off at the very next possible spot in order to stay as far away from interactionism as he conceivably can. It’s as if we’re all immigrants crossing the border by hopping a train headed for the Central Arizona Detention Center—the sooner we can get off this thing, the better; and if it eventually turns out that the jumps all look fairly equally suicidal, well, we’re just going to have to pick one and jump—anything is better than letting it ride all the way into the station.

“Dualism is to be avoided,” per Dennett, “at all costs.” And when Jaegwon Kim concludes that experience can’t be reduced to or “identified with” physiological processes and therefore decides to settle for epiphenomenalism, he doesn’t apologize for giving us a horror story narrative of the human condition wherein we’re all locked in streams of experiences that have no causal influence over anything whatsoever (where the mind is, as I described it before, like someone tied up with eyelids taped open in the back of our heads with arms and legs dismembered, passively forced to watch a screen, with no control or even slight influence over any part of the body or mind at all)—he doesn’t apologize for defining a psychiatric disorder (depersonalization disorder) as the fullest state of enlightenment about the true nature of reality—no; he apologizes for the fact that he had to deviate slightly from ordinary physicalism in order to get something he could even consider coherent: “The position is, as we might say, a slightly defective physicalism … [but] I believe that this is as much physicalism as we can have….  Physicalism is not the whole truth, but … near enough should be good enough.” [3]  It would hardly be unreasonable to say that the entire motivating premise behind almost all mainstream philosophy of mind is the attempt to answer the question, “What’s the best way not to be a dualist?” (Or, “what is the best way to reduce us all to inert physical mechanisms?[4]”)

_______ ~.::[༒]::.~ _______

I have throughout this series, however, held the caveat that I am defining “physical objects” as possessing only “physical properties” as I have defined them in order to make my way up to here. This does not invalidate what I have said up to here, even if by redefining “physical objects” to possess more than just “physical properties” we end up finding answers—I have been making only the assumptions of ordinary physicalism itself (and physicalists aren’t even the only ones who share the assumption). I’ve done this for a specific reason—as I think the particular nature of the critique I am going to make here can only be understood clearly if the dialectic as I have presented it up to here has been understood first.

Panpsychism is a position whose adherents will likely accept almost everything I have said up to here. Panpsychism presents itself as a solution to the mind–body problem—indeed, it presents itself as a solution to the problems exactly as I have defined them. I attacked the idea that the concept of “emergence” holds promise for making consciousness explicable on physicalism, for example, in my entry (IV). In Thomas Nagel’s 1979 article, ‘Panpsychism,’ he formulates panpsychism as a solution to exactly the same problem, writing: “ … there are no truly emergent properties of complex systems. All properties of complex systems that are not relations between it and something else derive from the properties of its constituents and their effects on each other when so combined.” The panpsychist solution? Posit that conscious experience is nothing new whose sudden appearance in the world needs any explanation because matter, all the way to the deepest “rock bottom” level, is experiential to the core to begin with—and explain that we’ve created the very difficulty of the mind–body problem itself by defining consciousness out of the ‘core (physical) ingredients’ of reality. So the sudden appearance of consciousness in human beings out of “physical” processes doesn’t need to be explained—consciousness is everywhere, embedded right in the very center of those ‘physical’ processes themselves.

Note, of course, that the panpsychist can’t say anything less than that conscious experience and intentionality themselves reside all the way down to the deepest levels of the entities in reality—there is simply nothing “in between” an experience and a non–experience. There may be varying degrees of robustness and detail within experiences, but something quite simply either is an experience or it isn’t. It may be that what it ‘feels like’ to be an electron is more like what it feels like to toss and turn during a deep sleep than what it feels like to be a wakened human being, but it must ‘feel like’ something. So long as experience rests in the roots, we can get experience to grow in the branches in more refined forms. We can’t evolve through stages from non–experience to experience, but we can evolve through stages from less robust and detailed to more robust and detailed experience just as long as we start with any kind of experience at all. To take my previous analogies in Does the World Pantry Stock More than Sugar?, the panpsychist solution would be to say that while the bag labeled ‘sugar’ was the only one in the pantry, it turns out that flour was mixed in with sugar in the bag all along. That certainly sounds promising. And indeed, I spent a long time thinking panpsychism was at least an equally probable answer aa dualism to the problems I’ve identified in other accounts, myself.

 _______ ~.::[༒]::.~ _______

I ended up reaching the conclusion, however, that panpsychism doesn’t foot the bill. In fact, all it does is create the illusion of doing so by turning the tab upside down so that we might not so easily recognize the numbers that are now upside down and on top of the tab instead of in ordinary, face–up recognizable form down at the bottom where we expect to see them. To realize why panpsychism fails to advance anything on the Hard Problem over materialism, we’ll have to try to imagine the numbers we recognize normally in inverted visual form in order to recognize them once we see them. Taking the paradigm which I have outlined above will be extremely helpful as an aid for seeing this.


The first key point to recognize is this: the fundamental core of the problem of consciousness is the question of how subjective, qualitative experience (and intentionality) could possibly relate to the physical causally disposing properties of the world. To say that consciousness exists everywhere, in conjunction with all instances where physical properties exist, is—in fact—not even an answer to this question. So far, the position specified is not even a response to the mind–body problem. Now, that’s not to say in any derogatory way that the fact that the bare claim of panpsychism (that consciousness in at least some form exists “all the way down” to the physical bedrocks of reality) hasn’t been formulated into a robust position yet on the actual mind–body problem itself just because that bare claim has been made immediately renders it inadmissable. To say that the bare claim is “not even a response” to the mind–body problem is not to imply the tone of the statement that it is “not even wrong.” It just means we have to actually formulate it before we are dealing with an actual position on the mind–body problem. But it is absolutely crucial to see that just because we specify that consciousness exists everywhere, we have not formulated any answer to the question of how the experiential properties of reality (wherever they may be) and the physical properties of reality actually stand in relation to and relate to each other. If we trace back through the chart, however, we can simply invert every single one of the positions there and see that exactly the same points apply! 

In the most superficial form, what makes the existence of consciousness seem mysterious at its first glance is the fact that, when we look in someone’s brain, we don’t see their experience of “tasting chocolate”—we just see physical structures and motion. The most basic issue is that we clearly seem to be dealing with two different types of properties, and it’s a mystery how they stand in relation to one another. If the bare claim of panpsychism is true, then the mystery that holds for the question of how instances of subjective conscious experience and physical dispositional properties to causally interact with other physical structures relate within a human mind/brain simply holds in exactly the same form for material micro–entities everywhere: when I look at an atom, I don’t “see” a feeling. So how does that ‘sit in there’ with the physical properties?

The basic thrust of the branching series of arguments earlier was as follows: either instances of experience and physical properties can be “identified” with each other, or else one can be “reduced to” (e.g., “claimed to be ‘emergent’ from”) the other, or else we can eliminate one or the other (eliminating the physical would be idealism, which I also bracket aside in the current analysis for reasons I will eventually discuss), or else one is epiphenomenal with respect to the other—or else it must be the case, by process of elimination, that interactionism is true. What are the panpsychist’s most viable options? In exactly which of these ways is consciousness ‘everywhere?’

_______ ~.::[༒]::.~ _______

The panpsychist, even on his own terms, simply does not have the option of saying that experiences and physical properties are identical. We arrived here precisely because of the Hard Problem of consciousness in the first place: if it is even conceivable that we could imagine having a “zombie” world, then it follows that the properties of experience and physical causal dispositions are not identical. But forget zombie worlds; even the materialists will agree with the point when formulated thusly:  if we can even imagine that panpsychism could conceivably not have been true, then the physical properties of the world around me and the experiential properties of the world around me are not simply literally identical. 

The only real argument in the panpsychist arsenal in the first place is that panpsychism is a solution to the problem of emergence (e.g., categorically new things can’t appear out of ingredients categorically unlike themselves, which are different not merely in degree but in kind; but if we posit that the “bedrock” entities reality is composed of are essentially ingredients of the same ‘kind’ as consciousness, the human consciousness–pie can then be accounted for in terms of the “ingredients” in reality’s pantry)—but the problem of emergence doesn’t even appear (and there would therefore be zero motivation to even consider panpsychism) unless we have rejected the “identity” of subjective conscious experiences with physical structures and causal dispositions to begin with. The two kinds of properties simply are not the same thing, in any case—that follows from a mere analysis of the conceptual content of both ideas alone, even if their existence does in fact coincide absolutely everywhere. But even if someone disagrees with that point, they are still left with no legitimate reason to go beyond the ordinary materialist mind–brain “identity” theory and into panpsychism anyway.

The physical properties as such clearly can’t be eliminated. That would leave us with a very bizarre sort of idealism, wherein the only kind of interaction that actually ever happens is psychic telepathy: your couch is a soul telepathically transmitting the experience to you of softness, green visual qualia, etc (or else we would be headed in the direction of a Berkeleyan sort of theistic idealism). Eliminating the experiential properties as such is even more obviously moot. And this point in the discussion brings us to the two remaining ways that the panpsychist might try to actually formulate the relationship between consciousness (as such) and physical properties (as such). The spread of conceptually possible options now looks like: Eliminate the mental, eliminate the physical, “identify” the mental and the physical, “reduce” the mental to, or have it “emerge” from, the physical; “reduce” the physical to, or have it “emerge” from, the mental; or treat the mental as an ontologically ‘extra’ property to the physical in a causally closed world—or interactionism. First and most plausibly, on the last approach of those just mentioned, the panpsychist may wish to hold to the causal closure of the physical properties of reality and say that consciousness exists everywhere as an effete tag–along—where experiences, as such, have no causal efficacy in their own right. We might think of this as the ‘property dualist’ version of panpsychism.

The problem, of course, has been thoroughly investigated already in the original opening discussion of subjective qualitative conscious experience in this series—“[I]f we represent causality with arrows, causal closure with parentheses, physical events with the letter P and experiences with the letter e, the world would look something like this:

… e1 ⇠ (((P⇆P))) ⇢ e2 …

Everything that happens within the physical world—illustrated by (((P⇆P)))—would be wholly and fully kept and contained within the physical world, where conscious experiences as such do not reside; the physical world is Thomas Huxley’s train which moves whether the whistle on top blows steam or not. And e1 and e2 float off of the physical world—for whatever reason—and then merely dissipate into nothingness like steam, with no capacity in principle for making any causal inroads back into the physical dimension of reality whatsoever. This follows straightforwardly as an inescapable conclusion of the very premises which epiphenomenalism defines itself by. But since the very brains which produce all our experienced thoughts are contained within (((P⇆P))), in order to have any experienced thought about conscious experience itself, these (per epiphenomenalism) would have to be the epiphenomenal byproducts of a brain state that is somehow reflective or indicative of conscious experience. But brain states, again because per epiphenomenalism they belong to the self–contained world inside (((P⇆P))) where no experiences as such exist, are absolutely incapable in principle of doing this.

… The fact that we do this, then—the fact that we do think about consciousness as such, and the fact that we write volumes and volumes and volumes and volumes philosophizing about it, and the very fact that we produce theories (including epiphenomenalism itself) about its relation to the physical world in the first place—proves absolutely” that epiphenomenalism is false. 

Alright, well … what alternative does that leave?

It isn’t pretty.

(Back to the list: Eliminate the mental, eliminate the physical, “identify” the mental and the physical, “reduce” the mental to, or have it “emerge” from, the physical; “reduce” the physical to, or have it “emerge” from, the mental; or treat the mental as an ontologically ‘extra’ property to the physical in a causally closed world—or interactionism.)

The only alternative is for the panpsychist to propose an inverted version of emergentism. He could say, for example, that whereas the physicalist proposed physical substances whose underlying operations naturally result in the appearance of “conscious experiences” by logical consequence in the same way that the underlying behavior of H2O molecules naturally results in the appearance of what we would recognize as the behavior of water, so he proposes that consciousness is in fact the substance of all reality—which leaves his theory with the need to account for the appearance of physical properties as emergent from the base root of consciousness in a parallel yet inverted way.

Just what would this actually entail?

To say the least, nothing better. We’d have to assume that the real “substances” that make up the world are something like  ‘minds’ or ‘selves,’ and that the velocity of a particular electron—for example—“emerges” in either the weak or strong sense from something like the electron’s felt desire to go a particular speed, or the electron’s feeling of a certain subjectively registered qualitative degree of felt “anxiety.” If the Hard Problem left materialism incapable of working to get experience coherently out of physical processes, then this ‘emergent’ form of panpsychism is equally absurd and inadmissible and fails just as much to offer any conceivable way of getting physical processes out of experiential roots. And the only alternative that would allow us to avoid that is, again, to make the substances physical and tack the experiential properties on as a universal tag–along—which would result in epiphenomenalism, which is every bit as incoherent and inadmissible.

(Back to the list: Eliminate the mental, eliminate the physical, “identify” the mental and the physical,“reduce” the mental to, or have it “emerge” from, the physical; “reduce” the physical to, or have it “emerge” from, the mental; or treat the mental as an ontologically ‘extra’ property to the physical in a causally closed world—or else interactionism.)

_______ ~.::[༒]::.~ _______

The upshot of all this?

Any conceivable reason one might actually have for reaching the point where panpsychism would appear worth considering as a potential solution to the mind–body problem will end up exactly being a reason why panpsychism itself fails to solve those very same problems. Just as “the mind is what the brain does” is a catchy slogan empty of any real substantive content and therefore worth neither defending nor refuting in terms as vague as those—and just as the materialist owes us some actually meaningful account of the actual relationship between consciousness and physical processes (as well as how it is that he actually understands the nature of each)—and just as performing this exercise will leave us with a variety of different positions which might stand or fall separately according to the particular merits or demerits of each, so the same goes for panpsychism.

“Experience is everywhere” is every bit as much a catchy slogan that is simply empty of the real substantive content needed to say that one has an actual position on the relationship between consciousness and the physical world. It stands every bit as much in need of being spelled out through some specified, actually meaningful account of what it means to say that that is true. What makes the notion of a brain that is seemingly all consciousness on the inside yet also seemingly purely physical from the outside mysterious goes every bit as much for the notion of a conscious boson.

And it turns out, in the end, that there is simply no way to actually formulate panpsychism coherently any more than there was any viable way to do so for materialism—at the very minimal least, one cannot say that any virtue of panpsychism is that it overcomes the problems had by ordinary physicalism, for actually formulating the claim that experience is everywhere into any meaningful details of how it is that that is so will inevitably result in one having to defend exactly the same premises one would have to reject in order to reject physicalism and see any possible reason to even try to adopt panpsychism in the first place. If we reject physicalism for its inability to both make sense of the relationship between “private” subjective conscious experience and “public” physical structure plus causal disposition and also avoid the modus tollens–forming dead end of epiphenomenalism, then panpsychism is no viable detour away from those problems.

Specifically, we have no reason to contemplate panpsychism at all unless it seems to be a viable solution to the problem of emergence. But no problem of emergence even appears to begin with unless we reject the mind–brain “identity thesis” on which subjective experiences and physical causal dispositions are literally identical and we therefore acknowledge a “hard problem” about the relationship between consciousness and the physical as our starting point. This leaves the panpsychist without the choice to say that the two types of phenomena are just literally identical (and the claim is transparently false, anyway, simply because we can even conceive of panpsychism failing to hold), and it means that the only possible ways of formulating the details of panpsychism left either result in epiphenomenalism or else result in a Hard Problem that was even more confused and ridiculous than the original one.

Pessimistically, I expect one predominant response to come from most panpsychists who consider this argument. Just as “emergent” materialists predominantly respond to the critiques of materialism by ignoring the fact that they charge, for good reason, that the inert causal patterns of internally ‘blind’ structural physical entities will never account for the appearance of subjective conscious experience in principle and ignoring the fact that science (per assumptions which they share) is never going to uncover anything other than more inert causal patterns and blind structures in principle, shirk the obligation to actually formulate materialism into something actually workable and coherent, and shrug while telling us that science will work out all of the details some day, so we should all shut up and stop trying to think philosophically—so I expect the panpsychists to primarily respond by simply refusing to accept the burden of formulating panpsychism into any specific workable and coherent form. But the issue stands, whether they accept the challenge or not: one of these actual relationships has to hold true between subjective experiences and physical causal properties. Panpsychism seems to fail for exactly the same reasons materialist accounts fail, no matter which of them we might try to pick.

So anyone who can swallow the materialist premises has no reason to contemplate panpsychism in the first place, and non–materialists turn out to have no reason to consider it any likely solution to the problems that the premises of materialism create after all. Accept the underlying assumptions of the materialist positions? You’re left with no reason to postulate panpsychism to begin with. Reject the underlying assumptions of the materialist positions? You’re left with no reason to think panpsychism actually offers a way out of them. While this may seem like a short order dismissal for a philosophy with roots stretching as deep into the past of philosophy as panpsychism, most of the work has already been done over the preceding entries—in the rejections of physicalist emergentism, identity theory, et cetera. All that was needed here is to point out that panpsychism actually has to be formulated into a claim, damn it and then show that it fails to solve the problems it billed itself to begin with as the solution for. The previous 20–30,000 words in entries (IV) through (VI) exist to explain why those problems truly are problems serious enough to disqualify a position from serious consideration.

Eliminating either the mental or physical? Neither are options for the panpsychist, by default. “Identify” conscious experiences with physical properties? (1), they simply aren’t identical kinds of properties—by the panpsychist’s own lights as well, if he admits that it is even logically conceivable that panpsychism might have been false; (2), the panpsychist would have no reason to posit panpsychism in the first place if he could identify them, because the problem of emergence that forms panpsychism’s sole valid motivation disappears if we don’t have to get anything to emerge because the two can be considered ‘identical’ to begin with. If the panpsychist finds this at all plausible, it is because things that are ‘identical’ and things that are (posited to) coexist everywhere at all times feel similar to naive intuition. “Reduce” physical properties to, or have physical properties “emerge from,” conscious experiences by supposing all that exist are mental substances, with emergent physical properties? This just turns the hard problem of getting subjective sensation out of neural movement into the absolute batshit absurdity[5] of trying to get an electron’s velocity out of how it’s been feeling. Treat the physical object as the substance, with the mental properties tacked on—the same regular old property dualism as ever, except that it posits that those properties exist everywhere? Well, that leads—once again—to the inexcusable conclusion of epiphenomenalism. Panpsychism makes a nice offer to foot the bill and puts a sincere effort into writing a check, it just turns out it doesn’t actually have any cash in its bank account.

_______ ~.::[༒]::.~ _______

We might say that the deep, fundamental conceptual gaps between “physical properties” as we have defined them (“mathematically describable geometric structures and mathematical–functionally describable tendencies towards patterns of spatiotemporal motion”) and the subjective, qualitative, phenomenal, intentionalistic (etc.) aspects of experiential consciousness are rather like the Grand Canyon. If the conceptual gaps are the Grand Canyon, then the intractable problems that appear on the ordinary materialist views which say that everything that makes up the human mind are at root ultimately ‘physical’ are the “jumping across the Grand Canyon from East to West” problem.


If panpsychism appears to actually solve any part of the problems of consciousness at all, it merely does so by leaving the Grand Canyon entirely and then returning to the plains to the West. The “jumping across the Grand Canyon from East to West” problem might have been solved by this act of relocation, sure—but now we just have the “jumping across the Grand Canyon from West to East” problem—and it turns out that that is just exactly the same problem. The relocation doesn’t actually even begin to make bridging between the two a whit more plausible or coherent at all—you just have to look East instead of West now in order to see it again: it just now takes a slightly different form of ‘looking.’

Panpsychism, in the end, turns out to be a pointless act of relocation pretending to be a bridge. If what we need is an actual bridge, then this simply isn’t it. For my part, I’m going to defend the position that that’s simply not a jump that can be made because we actually are dealing with two separate territories. 

_______~.::[༒]::.~ _______

[1] For all complaints that “introspection” is too unreliable to be of any use here, I refer to my previous entry (VI). In sum: “introspection” is unreliable at forming theories about why the data of conscious experience is what it is, but it is not even sensible to suggest that it could be unreliable at identifying what the data of conscious experience is. And while we may be mistaken as to whether we’re identifying plain data directly or crafting a theory to account for it in an given case, it takes an equal measure of both refining our ability to craft accurate hypotheses through falsification and “introspection” to determine this—but some piece of incontrovertible data will lie somewhere underneath all acts of theoretical “introspection.” If I think something that someone said made me feel ill, and it turns out that I only began to feel ill at that moment because an uncooked piece of meat hit my stomach right as they finished speaking, I can be mistaken in all my “introspection” about why what they said made me feel so ill, but I can’t be mistaken in my “introspection” of the fact that I do feel ill. 

All ordinary talk about illusions makes a distinction between an appearance, and the reality underlying that appearance which gives rise to it: ‘a stick half–placed in water appears to be bent; but it isn’t really bent.’ Thus, all ordinary talk about illusions precisely takes consciousness for granted, because consciousness itself is the very medium in which the misleading “appearance” exists—and it is simply incoherent to suggest that consciousness itself could be an “illusion” in anything like the same way, because where consciousness is concerned, the very existence of “appearances” is a major defining component of the “reality” we’re interested in: the reality of the existence of “appearances” themselves. We have to be careful, yes, but we can distinguish between the acts of “introspection” that could, in principle, be fallible; and those which, in principle, can’t. And I have only claimed three basic things as candidates for what falls into the category of things that can be known infallibly through “introspection”:

(a) that our experiences are of a subjective and qualitative nature, composed all the way through proprioception to the combination of sensory fields to emotions of absolutely nothing other than “raw” feelings and sensations—(and these can’t be analyzed in terms of abstract geometric structure and blind dispositions towards patterns of inert cause and effect);

(b) that our conceptual thoughts are “about” things; that thoughts have intrinsic “meaning” and semantic “content”—quoting Rosenberg, “Suppose someone asks you, “What is the capital of France?” Into consciousness comes the thought that Paris is the capital of France. Consciousness tells you in no uncertain terms what the content of your thought is, what your thought is about. It’s about the statement that Paris is the capital of France. That’s the thought you are thinking. It just can’t be denied. You can’t be wrong about the content of your thought. You may be wrong about whether Paris is really the capital of France. … You might even be wrong about whether you are thinking about Paris, confusing it momentarily with London. What you absolutely cannot be wrong about is that your conscious thought was about something. Even having a wildly wrong thought about something requires that the thought be about something.”—(and this can’t be analyzed in terms of physical causation either: again quoting Rosenberg, “[but] science has to deny [this]. Thinking about things can’t happen at all. The brain can’t have thoughts about Paris, or about France, or about capitals, or about anything else for that matter. … How can the first clump—the Paris neurons in my brain—be about, denote, refer to, name, represent, or otherwise point to the second clump—the agglomeration of Paris? … How can one clump of stuff anywhere in the universe be about some other clump of stuff anywhere else in the universe—right next to it or 100 million light-years away?”)

(c) that our experiences are of experiences overlapping across time; and thus that our awareness itself includes awareness of the fact that our identities as conscious subjects depends on this stream continuing to persist—and, therefore, that what makes me “me” is a fact about my consciousness itself; e.g., whether or not it continues persisting in the way that it usually does in waking life—(and this can’t be analyzed in terms of any third–person–verifiable facts, even if third–person–verifiable facts may covary with it and are the best that third parties can have—in some cases, if we kept all the third–person–verifiable facts between me and someone who looks and acts exactly like me identical, there would still be some plain unanalyzable fact about which one was “me.” Quoting Swinburne, “Using the word ‘experience’ for a brief moment in a wide sense, we may say that the succession of perceptions is itself a datum of experience; S experiences his experiences as overlapping in a stream of awareness. … [And] it is in the unity of a stream that we primarily discern the identity of a subject.’”)

[2] In assuming this definition, I do not assume that the “physical properties” as so defined are all that there are—or even necessarily that what we call “physical” objects (and forces) must be composed all and only of what I have defined as “physical properties.” But I happen to think that they are the only kinds of properties which “physical” objects (and forces) do have, and I happen to expect that any physicalist reading will naturally agree: the thesis of physicalism is often defined, after all, through the thesis of “causal closure of the physical.” In other words, physical entities are defined by their dispositions to act causally on the equivalently defined physical properties of other physical objects (and forces). Analogies might be made that the fundamental nature of the world is that of a mechanical clock, or a table of billiard balls, but these analogies can be misleading in that they would seem to imply that deterministically defined pushing and pulling is the only kind of physical causation that exists. Thus, the existence of quantum indeterminacy (for example) might be used to argue that this picture is a red herring. However, probabilistic determination is still blind and inert physical determination. A formula that specifies a metaphorical dice roll to determine the input of one of its variables is still, in the sense relevant here, “determined.” The details of how these blind and inert cause and effect dispositions operate is entirely beside the point, so analogies of this sort are as likely to be misleading as helpful.

[3] David Chalmers writes an amusing comment. “This calls to mind a counterfactual book called Straight, Or Something Near Enough subtitled I Just Fool Around With Guys on Weekends.  “The position is, as we might say, a slightly defective heterosexuality … but near enough should be good enough, right?”

[4] Is it really so illegitimate for me to wonder why preserving physicalism at all costs is a priority this high to begin with? At exactly what point—if any—would it no longer be so naive and philosophically inexcusable for me to ask, “What about preserving a little bit of fucking humanity? What about something that preserves even just the tiniest sliver of any kind of ‘purpose’ or ‘meaning’ for the existence of conscious life at all?” It’s one thing to reject the entire body of evidence for evolution wholesale because you want to believe you were specially designed by a personal loving creator, but does it really leave me in the same boat with them to feel uneasy about this degree of dehumanizing everything that makes us ‘human’ (using the word in the sense of ordinary person’s mush–headed connotation) to begin with?


What is it like to be bat–shit?


3 responses to “Consciousness (VII) — Panpsychism: Panacea, or Flash in the Pan?

  1. provoketur April 15, 2015 at 10:13 am

    In your arguments you give conclusions without adequate proof that a necessarily leads to b. Its not that a doesnt lead to b but that concluding anything without better representation of the mathematical modeling of the algorithms is useless. There is no proof nor disproof of anything in this.


    • Aedon Shevirah Cassiel April 15, 2015 at 3:59 pm

      Hi, Sean.

      I’d love to know exactly which claims you would identify “a” and “b” as; that is, exactly what claim it is that you’d like to see me further support, or think I would need to in order for the argument I pose here to go through. Two things I will admit likely go into the impression that what I’m presenting here isn’t as logically decisive or forceful as I’ve shown I believe it is.

      First, the point I argue here is so freshly processed in my own mind that when I write about it, I’m too busy retracing the technical details in my own head to fully devote as much processing as I’d like to into making it eloquent and fully approachable to anyone who isn’t as deep into those technical details as my mind is right now. So while I think the structure of the logic of my ultimate points is here, I am frustrated that it isn’t presented in quite as verbally focused a form as I would like.

      Second, much of it relies on showing that various ways of formulating panpsychism entail problems whose problemhood is for the most part only explained elsewhere. This series is ideally intended to be read as a series, and I’ve treated it like building a logically constructed tower on which each entry lays groundwork that is necessary support for much of what will follow. So I assume that if you’ve gotten to this point, you follow and accept the arguments that have been put forward up to this point (or at least accept that we are doing so for the sake of argument)—and if you don’t, then the discussion will have to move to points argued somewhere previously earlier in the series.

      Perhaps you hop off of the train somewhere into my entry (IV) on how the subjectivity of experience itself fits into the ultimate nature of the world, for example—if you do, that would impact how you evaluate everything else I say which follows, but we could only settle that by moving backwards to the place where that point is actually argued and justified. So if you’re confused because you’ve jumped into the series at an arbitrary point, we could probably have a very involved discussion around one of the previous entries. On the other hand, if you do see something I haven’t given adequate justification to that you think I need to explore more, I’d love to know what it actually is so I can fill in any blind spot I may have.

      I’ve excerpted from an ongoing exchange I am having with one of the leading representatives of panpsychism, here: — and I believe it may help to show that the conceptual equivocations that I have accused panpsychism of trading off of are in fact committed by panpsychists in exactly the ways my argument suggests that they would simply have to in order to make panpsychism appear to be a plausible position given that they have not made the conceptual clarification which I’ve tried to explain and show are impossible to resolve coherently in this post.

      Thanks for reading!


  2. provoketur September 5, 2016 at 1:21 am

    Wow. I just happened across this today and it looks like I have some reading to do.

    First I am sure I must ask if you have a definition of consciousness and an explanation of its existence.

    Im starting at the beginning of this article and if necessary will go throught the exchange.


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